Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Church and State in Israel

I don’t know who Dov Halbertal is but I really like him. Or at least what he said and how he thinks. Mr. Halbertal has written an op-ed in Ha’aretz that could have been written by me – almost verbatim. He argues that the State of Israel should consider separating politics from religion and adopt the first amendment to the American Constitution:

Congress (in this case the Knesset) shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Among the reasons he gave for separation of ‘church and state’ are the following:

I don't believe anyone has to pay for my beliefs. It's not ethical that the secular public finances yeshiva students and the high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox. There is nothing more infuriating to secular Israelis than to be spit in the face after they've given the ultra-Orthodox a generous sum of money. The ultra-Orthodox oppose the values of a secular society - Zionism, creativity, army conscription, sexual equality and more. However, they have no qualms about demanding and receiving money from this society, thereby intensifying public animosity toward them.

Let's be honest with ourselves. There is no reason the secular public should finance those who show contempt for its values. The solution I propose will benefit religion more than the state. I don't want to be part of a society that uses coercion. I don't want to be part of a society in which there is incitement to racism, and I don't want to be part of an ungrateful religious society.

Mr. Halbertal is not the first one to suggest this and will probably not be the last. What makes this somewhat unique is his self identification as ultra Orthodox (or Charedi). One might ask how a Charedi Jew could possibly counter the wishes of the religious leadership in Israel. The answer is something I have been saying for some time now. This man is a moderate. He is the kind of Charedi Jew that represents the majority of Charedim in the world.

I have often said that this type of Charedi is the wave of the future. But I was mainly thinking about the United States. In Israel where extremist ideologies are more common, I did not think there were significant numbers of Charedim who would qualify as moderate. And even if there were - they would never express their views in such a public way. Least of all in a newspaper like Ha’artez that many have called anti religious - more times than I can count.

The repercussions of expressing such views are dealt with pretty swiftly by the extremist Charedi establishment. The swift condemnation of a Charedi Knesset member from the Shas party for similar public comments demonstrates just how quickly and how severely people with dissenting views are marginalized. If one wants to remain a member in good standing of the Charedi world one does not air such views in public.

But Mr. Halbertal was not deterred. He has spoken the truth as he sees it. And I agree with him. The question is how quick will be the condemning response to his op-ed.

I certainly understand the right wing Charedi attitude about such things. They need the money more now than ever. And the power they have managed to achieve in recent years assures that they will get maximum financial support for their way of life. If I had that kind of power I would be just as quick to condemn anything that would undermine it. They consider financial aid from the government to be a lifeline for their very existence. They therefore consider undermining government financial aid tantamount to undermining Judaism itself. So I don’t blame them for their quick and harsh response - should it come.

For the record, I don’t think there is going to be a separation of church and state in Israel any time soon – if ever. The stakes are too high and Charedi leadership is too strong for that to happen. And they getting stronger all the time.

But at least voices of sanity are beginning to emerge from that quarter. The more the merrier. You never know...